WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (JTA) – Characterizing the situation in the Middle East as “uppermost in our mind,” Colin Powell told the U.S. Senate committee considering his nomination for secretary of state that he would work for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Appearing before the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Powell, a retired U.S. general, praised President Clinton’s work toward a peace agreement and indicated that President-elect George W. Bush would continue the effort.
“We will do our part to keep the peace process moving forward,” he said.
The new administration’s first step will be to ask Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to rein in the violence that has raged in the region since late September.
After that, the administration will prepare its diplomatic strategy while waiting for the results of Israel’s Feb. 6 election, Powell said.
Bush’s foreign policy team is expected to take a very different approach to the peace process than the current administration, which took a strongly proactive role in nudging Israel and the Palestinians toward an agreement.
Powell, who served as national security adviser in the Reagan administration and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War in 1991, noted that Israel and the Palestinians themselves need to take the initiative on the peace front, and not rely on the United States to push an agreement forward.
“We seek a lasting peace, as have all previous administrations, based on unshakable support for the security of Israel, the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, our friendships in the Arab world and a hard-headed recognition that the parties themselves must make the peace,” Powell said.
Bush has said he supports the peace process but does not want the United States to interfere in domestic Israeli policy. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said he is certain Bush will play an important role for peace.
Powell indicated he would look beyond the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to possible future agreements between Israel and other countries.
“We are ready to work with all the parties in the region to achieve a comprehensive solution. Peace for Israel means peace with all of her neighbors, Syria included, where we need to build on the opportunity created by Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon,” he told the committee.
Powell’s views on Israel are largely unknown, but Israeli columnists already are lamenting his approach to the region and the expectation that the Bush administration will make the Middle East less of a foreign policy priority.
When he accepted the nomination, Powell said the Bush administration would “remain very much engaged” in the Middle East.
The issue would continue to be “a major priority” for the State Department, he said, yet he hinted at a new role for the U.S. administration.
The policy “will be based on the principle that we must always ensure that Israel lives in freedom, and in security and peace,” Powell said last month.
“But at the same time, we have to do everything we can to deal with the aspirations of the Palestinians and other nations in the region.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Powell also noted the “tragic case” of Iraq, saying Iraq must prove to the United States that it does not have weapons of mass destruction.
Powell pledged to reinvigorate sanctions against Iraq, claiming that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s weapons development program, not sanctions, is responsible for his people’s suffering.
Powell also promised to look at issues of religious freedom worldwide and said he would consider maintaining the State Department’s office on Holocaust assets.